Ahaz was one of the worst kings, and his badness is magnified when even evil Israel listens to God’s word. What does this have to do with Jesus’ word about the poor?
The Chronicler is somewhat kind when he judges kings. Though he committed a great act of treachery (2 Chron 24:20-21), Joash does what is right in the site of Yahweh (24:2). Though an idolator (2 Chron 25:14-15), Amaziah does what is right in the sight of God (25:2). Though he was a proud king (2 Chron 26:16-21), Uzziah does what is right in the sight of Yahweh (26:4). It is shocking then that Ahaz is given a bad report (28:1).
Well, shocking may be the wrong word. He did, after all, craft metal images of Baal, made offerings which included his son, which was, you know, an abomination like that of the nations, and he sacrificed just about anywhere he pleased. But it does seem like the Chronicler has been lenient before. It seems like this time, Ahaz has gone too far. Worse: Ahaz’s abominations were the first signal that exile was coming (cf. Lev 26 and Deut 28). Because of this, Uzziah is struck from all directions: Damascus from the east, Israel from the North, Edom from the south, and Philistines from the west. These early attacks are warning signs of a greater attack: when Babylon will finally cart Judah away into exile.
Put into context, God’s mercy is magnified when we read this alongside Isaiah. Despite the now looming exile, God still has mercy for Judah, if she would only accept it and repent (Isaiah 7). Pekah and the king of Syria are attempting to overthrow Judah and install a new king. This is a direct affront to the Davidic covenant that Yahweh made with Israel, so Isaiah brings a word to Ahaz. If he would only have faith, Yahweh will bring about the end of Israel and Syria’s tyranny against them. He would even give a sign, a son born of a virgin, to seal this promise. Ahaz is unfaithful, and doesn’t trust Yahweh. In light of this, Israel and Judah are both living in incredible sin.
This should cause us to be surprised when we read about Oded. As Israel is leaving Judah with her spoils of war, including people, to return to Samaria, they are met by a prophet. Israel, too, is on her way to exile, one which does not have an end in sight (no promises similar to Jeremiah 29 exist for Israel’s kingdom). But God still has a prophet for them, warning them that they were about to make their sin even worse. Yes, they had been appointed by God to punish Judah, but they had gone too far overboard.
Thankfully, the heads of the armies were listening to God’s word. Azariah, Berechiah, Jehizkiah, and Amasa tell them to return the captives in order to not incur guilt (a word used three times in verse 13.) But they did not return them as is. Rather, they sent them back clothed, fed and watered, even anointed on donkeys. It was not enough to return the captives: they were to be given more than they left with. They were returned to the city of palm trees. Palms are a symbol of restoration and life in the OT (cf. Exod 15:27).
Ahaz responds in desperation: he cuts a pact with Assyria, hoping that they could help them. Judah recently suffered devastating losses to Edom and Philistia, so they would take anything they could get. Saul’s greatest sin was called ma’al, but Ahaz one-upped him: he was guilty of ma’ol ma’al. His sin reached the throne of God. He offered sacrifices to Assyria’s gods, and essentially closed down the temple liturgy. In effect, everything special about Israel was shut down in Ahaz’s desperation.
The question is: why would Jesus allude to this episode in Matthew 25:41ff? Maybe understanding this story gives us a key to understanding how to love Jesus through the poor.